I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t have some gripe about the state of SNL, very often rooted in nostalgia for a simpler, funnier Golden Age. It’s hard not to associate iconic TV shows with lost youth, even shows that have moved on when some of the rest of us haven’t.
The live sketch comedy show, now two years into its fourth decade, has done its best to keep pace with changing times and tastes. While my own fandom has waxed and waned, one thing has remained a constant: my considerable appreciation for the talent and sheer moxie required to stage original live comedy on national television, week after week for forty years.
Comics and celebrity guests risk the disaster of dead air when jokes fall flat. Crewmembers rig up convincing sets only to strike them minutes later for completely different environs. Make-up artists transform Kate McKinnon from the cartoonish Jeff Sessions to the bald, jowly “Shud the Mermaid” in-between sketches, a process that seems to unfold in seconds in the sped-up behind-the-scenes video above.
Sure, everything on the show is scripted and choreographed, and the actors read from cue cards. But as the popular phenomenon of “corpsing”—breaking character by breaking into laughter—shows us, anything can go wrong live with the best-laid plans of writers and directors. The quick-change transition between the cold open and the opening monologue, which both happen on the “home base stage” of studio 8H, as you can see at the top; the rock-solid segues from the live band, below…. The SNL machine depends on every one of its many moving parts to function.
And if—or inevitably when—one of those parts malfunctions, well the show goes on... and on and on and on…. How many seasons does SNL have left in it? Another forty? A possibly infinite number? Given how well its teams of creatives and crew have mastered the art of live televised sketch comedy—not all of it to everyone’s taste, to be sure—it’s possible that Saturday Night Live will outlive even the phenomenon of television, transplanting itself somewhere in our brains in the far future, where we'll lean back, close our eyes, and hear the saxophones and that familiar, rousing announcement, “Live, from New York…."
See the show’s makeup department head and hair designer walk us through their process below, and watch four more behind-the-scenes shorts at the “Creating Saturday Night Live” playlist on Youtube.